Culture and social inequality are closely related. If art is made predominantly by and for an exclusive audience, what role do institutions play in solidifying social inequality?
In this talk, which has been edited from an online discussion organised by Liverpool's Open Eye Gallery on 24 September 2020, artist Larry Achiampong spoke to Mike Pinnington—writer, editor, and co-founder of the visual arts publication, The Double Negative—about the varying levels of access people have to places of culture through the social context of Achiampong's practice as determined by background and privilege.
Achiampong is a multi-disciplinary artist whose solo and collaborative projects employ imagery, aural and visual archives, live performance, and sound to explore ideas surrounding class, cross-cultural, and post-digital identity. Awarded a BA in Mixed Media Fine Art from the University of Westminster in 2005 and MA in Sculpture at The Slade School of Fine Art in 2008, the artist has exhibited, performed, and presented projects within the U.K. and abroad.
Achiampong frequently works with artist David Blandy to produce collaborative projects, with the earliest of these being Biters in 2014. Drawing from Blandy's exploration of popular culture from a visual point of view, and Achiampong's own sound-based approach, the two artists created a sample-based work drawing from hip hop, to explore the 'biter' as someone who takes lines or parts of another's song or performance. Through this live project, Blandy and Achiampong 'acknowledged the self as biter, and cultural production as biting.'1
'Finding Fanon' (2015–2017), a trilogy of films by Achiampong and Blandy has followed suit, looking at the lost plays by the anti-colonial thinker to explore how societal interactions in the global and technological age are defined by race and racism. Most recently, the trilogy is being shown at Art Exchange in Essex (A Lament for Power: Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, 6 October–14 November 2020), and will also be showcased as part of the online iteration of the Digital Cultures Festival organised by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Poland (17–25 October 2020).
In Essex, A Lament for Power is the result of the artists' nine-month residency at the University of Essex. Looking at the relationship between science, politics, and race in the technological age, Blandy and Achiampong's new film questions the ethics of scientific discovery, incorporating popular references from the gaming world.
During Frieze London 2020, Copperfield presented work by Achiampong curated by Norman Rosenthal on their online viewing room, with a pop-up booth of the artist's work on view opposite the Royal Academy at 12 Piccadilly Arcade (7–11 October 2020). Also showing in October is Reliquary 2, an animated film work produced during and in response to Covid-19, presented online with John Hansard Gallery in Southampton (1 October 2020–31 January 2021), where the artist's series of flags in Pan-African colours adorn the gallery's façade (PAN AFRICAN FLAGS FOR THE RELIC TRAVELLERS' ALLIANCE [MOTION], 8 February 2020–31 January 2021).
Looking to 2021, a new commission by Achiampong, to be unveiled as part of the exhibition Rock Against Racism: Militant Entertainment 1976–1982 (1 January–4 April 2021), explores the rise of the British cultural and political movement at the De La Warr Pavilion in the seaside town of Bexhill-on-Sea in East Sussex, U.K.
In this conversation, Achiampong reflects on his trajectory into art, his experience working with institutions, along with his role as a tutor on the Photography MA programme at the Royal College of Art in London, which he has held since 2016, questioning how institutions can actively diversify representation to create a culture that is open and inclusive to all.
MPI wanted to start by giving a bit of context to this idea of access to the arts and why I thought this would be an interesting conversation to have with Larry especially.
I first met Larry a couple of years ago, just prior to his display at Tate Liverpool's Tate Exchange space (Relic Traveller, 15–21 January 2018) and I had the pleasure of interviewing him about this presentation for The Double Negative. As soon as we got talking, it became really obvious that we had certain things in common in terms of our perspectives on the sector and a little bit in common in our journeys into the sector.
I'm not an artist, I'm a writer, but having a working-class background has really played into my very circuitous route to get into the sector. When I think about that in any great detail, it's about the networks, opportunities, the perception of class—of yourself, but also of those around you and your peers—and self-image, the time you have to play with, the confidence that you've got, and the money or lack of money that you have.
These were all factors when it came to me finding a career in the art sector, and that was something that me and Larry spent quite a long time talking about in our interview, which became more of a conversation, and I thought this would be a good chance to expand that conversation through the lens of Larry's practice.
I know that we have spoken about this Larry, but it'd be good to hear a little bit from you about your route into the sector and your experience of finding your way as a contemporary artist.
LAI guess the weird thing with that question is that I feel like I'm still living in it, if you know what I mean. Sometimes people approach me, and say, 'Oh, it's great you've made it.' Made what? I feel like it's a constant journey, and certainly with reference to the conversation that we had a couple of years ago around class, race, and backgrounds that tend to be othered within a scene that rewards those of 'higher class', or who are white or male or who have money. That's felt like a constant battle for me, day to day.
There's the constant conversation with institutions about budget and money in relation to building work, which of course is something that all artists have to deal with, but some artists are going to find that way more difficult than others. If we're honest about it, a lot of institutions don't pay artists well, so you're dealing with having to negotiate or having to fight—not even simply one's own corner, but the corner of many other artists, as it were.
I know that even within my position, I'm potentially representing a lot of upcoming young, Black artists by how I am or if I do a job well or not, so there's a lot of pressure. I try to do what I can.
I think even in this time of pandemic, one of the beautiful things is that there are aspects of unity coming about through struggle.
Research is very important, but at the same time, it's carving out and making those important debates for why I shouldn't have to talk about getting paid in the first place, or being treated fairly. Things like having to demand contracts, and having to do that again and again.
Then there's the experience of studying within an institution, coming from a background that really just isn't catered for in that way. From my own experience, when I think about studying in the 2000s and being this Nintendo kid and getting asked, 'What the hell are video games? Why do you still play video games?' Twenty years later, video games are a central part of the art scene.
There is also simply the thing of existence—the existence or the lack thereof, visibility-wise, of Black practitioners, practitioners of colour, or simply people from working-class backgrounds or the underclass. When you don't see that in front of you and you come from that particular lived experience, you can feel like you're going crazy, because you have to internalise all of that. Even if you try to make a conversation around that, people look at you like you're weird, or like you're wearing some kind of outfit that is blinding people.
That has been magnified through my experience of teaching people. I tutor at the Royal College of Art—I've been teaching there for the last four years, this year will be the fifth year. Students of colour, particularly Black students, they have a hard time because their needs are not catered for, so it's still quite a contentious thing. I don't know if that answers your question, or attempts to open that up.
MPAbsolutely. We run a strand of articles on The Double Negative about people working in the sector from a working-class background, which we shared on Twitter. On the one hand, I noticed that the articles were getting loads of hits and people were thankful that the conversation was being had, but on the other hand, I saw people saying, 'What's the point of having this conversation? Nothing's going to change.'
I think it's important to platform issues like this. If you're from a working-class or underclass background, and you find yourself in the sector at a big institution, for example, you might—as you say, Larry—begin internalising things. Then you're in the position of feeling like a bit of a pretender, as if you are acting.
MPThere's also that question, 'What's it like now you've made it?' In my case, I've had people say, 'Surely you're middle class now? You've been to uni and you've worked in the sector.' I'm like, 'Well, okay, but I've still got the working-class context that I come from'.
Although it's a relatively soft one, I've got a Merseyside accent, which is kind of unusual, especially when you go to London and have meetings. As laughable as this is, you can be strangely exoticised by the sector for having any point of difference.
So I think it's really important and it was good to hear your perspective of being at a place like the RCA, which is so established, and you're talking about students who are struggling with that situation, because they're not what people typically think of as an 'RCA student'.
LADefinitely, and they potentially get ostracised as a result. I've had students who have told me that they're close to leaving because of the lack of care that the system has towards them. To me, that's unacceptable. It's interesting the point that you made about when some people question the point of fighting for or protesting this stuff, and it's true—you say nothing and everything will just continue as it is.
I grew up the middle kid in my family, so I was always talking when I was told to shut up or be quiet. I almost can't help myself—if I see something that's important to talk about, it's important to make that point known, especially when we're working on these projects or we're working within a certain environment.
I don't care if you're Tate. I don't give a damn if you're MoMA. If you're not respecting what I'm doing, what other practitioners are doing, and you're not giving me that equity—and I know what you're getting as the institution—then this conversation needs to end. I've felt more and more strongly about that as time has gone along.
This has nothing to do with opportunities being received, it's actually to do with frustration. It's the frustration of these institutions that love to talk about fairness. They love to talk about equality. They love using these buzzwords, but they're not preaching anything near what they're apparently practicing.
MPThe last few months have been talked about as a tipping point, especially in conversations around diversity when it comes to representation in galleries, but also trying to make sure that you're doing right by your audience, and by that I mean potential audience, too.
I think we're starting to see that exhibitions have to programme based on artwork being good, not because an artist has ticked the box for that 12 months of programming. You may not feel as optimistic as me, but I feel like we've now got to a point that institutions really have to talk the talk and walk the walk. They can't just do the tokenistic show and then got back to 'normal' programming.
MPI really want to get to the point where we can talk about programming being based on really interesting art. As an audience, I think we can be given a bit more credit that we don't just always want to see the Andy Warhol show, because you can only spend 18 quid so many times on a Warhol exhibition.
I think if you offer the audience a range, then they'll start to broaden their own perspectives and go and see more of these artists as well. I don't know if you think that too?
LADefinitely, also I want to add that I am optimistic. I don't think I'd be doing what I'm doing otherwise. Of course, you wonder why certain people—I don't need to say any names—are still doing what they're doing, if they think this whole thing is shot to shit, but it's just about being critical. I have to do that with myself. I have to be critical of myself in relation to how I am as a parent.
You have to try to think about progressive ways where you're not hurting other people, because people know how it feels to be hurt, some people more or less than others, but you don't want that to carry on as a culture. So, there's an optimism, definitely.
LAI think even in this time of pandemic, one of the beautiful things is that there are aspects of unity coming about through struggle. Not entirely of course. The government, for example, has this slogan-ish idea of, 'We're in this together', and it's like, 'Well, no, we're not in this together.'
There are those who have the logistics to be able to look after themselves and there are those who don't. What you do have, in some places, are people amassing as communities, whether locally or digitally—sharing, talking, connecting. The government hasn't set that up, what they've done is they've asked people to clap every Thursday evening, while they take away the salaries of nurses and doctors.
So for me, the optimism is with people. When we become critical, these so-called powers—whether they're institutions or whatnot—they've got no choice but to listen, because if we're not turning up at their doors or not going to their events or even clicking on the images that they post, they become irrelevant.
There are already issues with these organisations, Tate and whatnot, trying to keep up with the curve with digital technologies. Everything from a lot of these institutions just seems so bland, because they have a lack of being able to connect culturally. But certainly, I agree with what you say about opening up that space to see things that have not been allowed to be seen.
I think historically about shows like The Other Story, which Rasheed Araeen fought tooth and nail to have happen at the Hayward Gallery in 1989. There is still a similar level of fighting to exist, to show things, and I'm tired of hearing the kinds of excuses like, 'Oh, well, it's not really what the public want.' The public are being given what apparently these cultural leaders believe that people want.
There isn't consultation, there isn't open conversation about that, or enough open conversation. If you open that into the realm of popular culture—you and I were talking about the likes of the Black Panther film, for example—I don't even think Marvel thought that film was going to be that big! I'm saying that as a fan of that character. If I turn the camera, you'll see a load of my Black Panther collected compendiums and issues and so on.
I watched the ground on that for years, and one of the interesting things with that is, you always know when a company is putting big behind something, or anticipating something to have a positive impact by the types of toys that they're selling. I remember searching for toys for my kids, and in comparison, to say, Iron Man or Captain America, there were hardly any toys at all that I could find in Tesco.
It comes down to this lack of faithful belief in practitioners of colour, Black practitioners, practitioners from backgrounds that are different from the status quo, because there's a lack of genuine understanding. In a way, part of that actually comes down to the fact that those people of power, they lack that lived experience. There needs to be more people who have some of those experiences who are given the equity or that space, or the chance to be able to make those decisions.
I just don't think—if we look across the U.K., for example—that all of those same directors are going to wake up the next day and be like, 'Oh yeah, we're going to be progressive now.' Some of these silly letters that organisations have put out, and they don't even know what they're really saying, they're probably just copied and pasted from something else. Again, like I said, it's buzzwords.
It comes down to being critical. I'm certainly optimistic, I wouldn't be a parent otherwise. All of that is intertwined. As they say, the personal is political.
MPSomething I find really interesting in your work is the science fiction element. You've got all those elements with which to engage an audience, and then once you've got that audience, there's more layers to the work to discuss the bigger picture.
I first came across you when you were interviewed with David Blandy in Art Papers, for 'Finding Fanon' (2015–2017). I'd never heard of Frantz Fanon. We got that Art Papers because it was a Philip K. Dick science fiction special issue. That's how I came to your work and that's how I came to know about what Fanon was talking about—I understood your work through the lens of that interview.
Quite a while later, I actually got to see the trilogy of films that you and David made about Frantz Fanon. Of course, you use the terrain of a video game in that as well. Obviously these are all areas of interest for you, but is that a way for you to sneak through the message, by using these pop culture mediums?
LAIt's not so much a way of sneaking in a message, as it is that it's been a part of my life growing up and still is. I was born in the mid-eighties, so was a child of the late eighties and nineties, playing 8-bit video games. My mum couldn't afford to get us video games, so me and my brother would hustle in the playgrounds. Watching old-school VHS types of Enter the Dragon through to Back to the Future, that was my life growing up.
I'm constantly referring to material that I don't know as much about, and that I want to know more about.
I was saying the other day that I didn't get to go to a gallery until I was an adult—until I was about 18 or so. That wasn't a part of my life in the way that it was for my peers. Does that mean that I wasn't exposed to art? No, it just means I had an entirely different experience. Privilege didn't afford me to experience certain aspects of art—for me it was video games.
The weird thing about this is, and I've argued about it with some people for years, those arguments, funnily enough, have disappeared now that you see ArtReview or Art Monthly talking about the virtual space. But for me, video games have always been an art form, because it's that ability to create an atmosphere to believe in or to imagine. That's not too dissimilar from entering an art show or an artistic experience of expression. It's the same difference. It's just like apples and oranges, really.
By growing up with these aspects of culture and being a fan of those bits of culture, I still buy, play, collect, talk about, and argue with some of my friends about video games and music and films.
It's because of those things that I'm surrounded by that they become a part of the work somehow. Sometimes I perhaps do that a bit more blatantly, other times maybe it's a little bit more subversive, but it's the thing that I'm into. In the same way that I grew up skateboarding a bit, I use that within the work because it's something that I'm familiar with.
That's not to say that within my work, when it comes to building research, I'm not exploring things that I don't know about. I'm constantly referring to material that I don't know as much about, and that I want to know more about. It comes down to that lived experience and bringing that into the conversations that I'm having, sometimes with a certain kind of nuance, and then other times one that is perhaps a bit closer to me personally.
MPOne of the strengths of your work is that it occupies both of those things—it feels very personal to you, but is very nuanced as well. The work that has really developed and progressed, and that you've revisited a few times, is 'Relic Traveller' (2017–ongoing), which you've talked about as a postcolonial perspective informed by technology, agency, the body, and narratives of migration.
You've just updated that with the animation work, Reliquary 2 (2020), which addresses the current moment of the coronavirus and how it disproportionately affects people of colour. You've directly addressed your children in that work as well.
I wonder if you could share some of the 'Relic Traveller' series, and talk us through some of the ideas and how it came about.
LAThis year, summer just gone, marks the third year since establishing of the project, but it really came about in relation to what you asked about popular culture. Initially, I wanted to make a set of stories that covered or included the use of film or prose writing and points of popular culture in a way that I didn't feel that I'd seen before. This is before Black Panther came out, and in a way, during the earlier points of mine and David Blandy's collaborative practice of 'Finding Fanon'.
There are things you learn along the way with different experiences you have with people. With David, I learned different approaches to filmmaking. Especially being a parent to two young Black kids. I would sit sometimes and think, what is it that they're going to grow up and be surrounded by? Is it going to be the same kind of thing that I was surrounded by? Will they be able to see Black heroes that can potentially fly to space and feel like they can feel that type of energy or that potential, or that strength and so on?
On the back of the conversations and debates and even arguments, sometimes, that me and David had at the time—about Brexit, actually—I was also reading about what was happening on the African continent.
At that point, there was—and still is—a passport programme being developed to allow Africans to travel amongst the 54 or 55, depending on the way you see it, states with no problem. So in one part of the world, borders are opening, while in another, borders are closing. That felt like a really interesting starting point for me to world-build a set of ideas, to be speculative, to think about my interest in science fiction, and ask certain questions like, 'What if?'
What happens with all this nationalism that's on the rise in the West, if it continues to have the space to live, to grow? I'm really thinking to the point down the line that, if these so-called ideas by these people who push them are successful, you close yourself off to culture; culture on an economic level—on so many levels. You become a relic. You become a relic in time—that's what happens.
So that's where the word 'relic' came from, and then of course 'traveller', because these relic travellers are people sent through a programme from the African Union to places around the planet to pick up vocal testimonies—vocal testimonies that have been left by people who have been oppressed. Those testimonies, which you hear within the films, and then visually you're travelling with the relic traveller.
Those vocal testimonies are picked up because it's part of a process of healing, and also a way of governing a future that is from a bottom-up perspective, not a top-down one. So it's about listening to those stories that have been pushed to the periphery or nigh erased.
There were so many things that I wanted to achieve with the project in the beginning, and I remember talking about it with close friends, because when I'm developing a project, I don't do the crit thing. That doesn't interest me, because I've witnessed and been in too many crits where ideas just get shut down, where someone's like, 'That's not possible.' So I was thinking big with all of these things and imagining film or music and all of this stuff.
When it came to applying things—alongside Nephertiti Oboshie Schandorf, my producer, and then at certain points with the likes of Louise Searle or even Wumi Olaosebikan, who helped me realise the flag designs from sketches I'd done—I would essentially run pitches for these visions that I had, and out of that you have the strand of the films and the strand of performances. Again, a lot of this comes from germs or seeds of ideas, packed with a lot of conversation about how this stuff works.
These institutions, they know their time is up. They have to make real decisions, genuine ones, and they'll have to change, or they'll become relics.
One of the things with the Relic Traveller film, which is really important, was thinking about the suit. How do I make it look believable, without putting some crazy silver glittery thing that just looks like it's potentially not real? A lot of research went into that, into USSR MiG pilot costumes, which had then been reverse-engineered by the Chinese.
The version that I decided on in the end, which I also tinkered about with visually for the film, was of Chinese design. So in a way that was me talking about the Chinese presence within the African continent, without having to necessarily say it in a matter of words. A lot of research went into it, and still goes into it.
MPI've followed your career over the last few years, especially since the performance at Tate, Voyage of the Relic Traveller, on 21 January 2018. Your performance happened on a wet Sunday afternoon, but despite those conditions, the size and diversity of the audience spoke to the possibility of how galleries can be animated differently by different artists.
You've got the responsibility of institutions and galleries to share some of that weight. You've been incredibly prolific, but that doesn't come at no cost to yourself. At some point, you want the responsibility of institutions to kick in, and for them to diversify their collections, but also demonstrate the diversity of the collections by actually putting them on display in galleries.
Do you think it's now time for other people to pick up that baton of responsibility and run with it a little bit?
LAIt's been that time. It's been that time for a long while. It just so happens that a disease has forced the world to go indoors, where people, especially white privileged people, can't run away from the facts that are right in front of them. I mean, how many Black people do you have to see being killed before there is a problem? It's also not simply something that's just happening in the United States, right? There's a whole load of problems out here.
Within the scripts that I've written for the new 'Relic Traveller' film, Reliquary 2, which has been launched on the website of John Hansard Gallery, it's in the form of a letter to my children. I did a bit of research and found that although Black people make up three percent of the U.K.'s population, we're four times more likely to die from the disease. That's a manifestation of racism. That's not even a debate and I'm not going to have a debate with anyone about it. What are you going to say, it's because some Black people are a little overweight? Come on, that's just trash.
What happens with all this nationalism that's on the rise in the West, if it continues to have the space to live, to grow?
It's not even just about the shows, it's about what these organisations are doing with their spaces. What are Tate doing with this new pyramid building that they built in London? Just recently, I finished my residency with Somerset House Studios. Name another organisation in the U.K. that has done what Somerset House Studios has done, in terms of having that magnitude of artists within a premiere, world-class building.
Tate could be and should be showing the way for that, as should Southbank Centre and the V&A. But they open up these little tiny opportunities to do their tick-box things. I know what it is that they do with their display spaces. I ended up agreeing to show in Tate Liverpool—that's how we met. But when I look back, it's certainly not something that I'll do again anytime soon, because I see the way in which those of us as practitioners, particularly practitioners of colour, we get used for the gold that we've got in terms of what we show, and what we're capable of showing.
This all goes into Arts Council reports, ticking boxes, to say, 'We got this number of artists in and it opened up to this number of people.' Well, what if you gave us genuine opportunities? Not just to show up on the day and play some sounds, but actually have conversations that go beyond and really permeate.
It's about these organisations or people putting their money or their resources where their mouth is. It's not enough just to share a story, or say something on Twitter—you've got resources, so share them. If you can, share them. I just find it strange. I'm sure that the typical snotty arty type might even say, 'Oh, well, Somerset House isn't even all that of a gallery', but they're known worldwide. They have a platform and that's being used.
You can debate it, you can critique it, but have Tate done the same in terms of the space that they have? No, they haven't. Do they have that space? Yes, they do. Do they have a particular plan for how to use that space? Yes, they do. Does it genuinely cater for and look after the artists—especially artists who are oppressed? No, it doesn't. Otherwise there wouldn't even be the protests that are happening with regards to the 300-plus people who have had their livelihoods taken by the institution, just like that. Literally in a day.
It's not even just about the shows, it's about what these organisations are doing with their spaces.
There's a lot of work that needs to be done. I think there are a lot of problems and symptoms that are within this system that we work in. There are different things that need to be pulled apart or opened up, critiqued and broken down, for new things to happen. I just don't think that the same old models are going to work, going forward.
If you try to look into the future, beyond the difficulty of the virus at the moment, how are people going to care as much about galleries as they did before the virus? Why are they going to give a damn if they don't see themselves in these spaces? No, that's going to change. These institutions, they know their time is up. They have to make real decisions, genuine ones, and they'll have to change, or they'll become relics. It's as simple as that.
MPBeing told to 'Be the change you want to see'—that's great, but then that puts all of the onus on the individual. Given the last six months or so, I hope we'll start to see a proper commitment to change. For big institutions to properly think about how they organise and display their collections, because they've got all of that work and they can tell stories through collections in a way that one-off exhibitions can't.
If we're not being told a variety of stories all the time, then that isn't going to go in, and people aren't going to have the opportunity to see things from different perspectives and change their own perspectives and perceptions of things.
So I think you're right—going forward, we need to see demonstrable change from the people who have the resources to do it. I have genuinely got a bit of optimism about certain galleries and certain institutions, who I think want and understand that they need to move in the right direction.
LAWe'll see how that happens in time to come. Education institutions have got to change, too. It can't be the same as it was, it just can't. But you have to have optimism with this. I believe that's important. There's just no point otherwise. There are plenty of us who are watching closely, and fortunately more and more of us who are opening our mouths. That's going to be important as well, because then these so-called organisations can't get away with what it is that they're doing. They can't continue to get away with it.
The interesting thing I've noticed is there are some who will say, 'Oh, it's crazy what's been happening with Tate', but that's been happening for years. Galleries have these strange practices where they have so much money for entertainment and beverages, for example, but they don't have budget to pay their artists. That's just stupid, you know?
I'm not saying this as somebody who has an inkling; I'm saying this as somebody who's worked in a range of galleries, and you see this stuff and you're just like, 'Wow.' The ecology's got to change. I'm also not saying that we can't have a good time, or people can't have a drink. You can do it, it's just rethinking how you value people or how certain people are not valued. They're not being valued, so that's got to change.
MPIn our chats back and forth the last few days or so, I definitely felt like I wanted to talk about where we saw solutions and positivity, but maybe it's better to end with your provocation of, 'This is the time to change', and open up it up to some questions.
LAAll good with me.
At this point, Sorcha Boyle (SB), responsive programme coordinator at Open Eye Gallery, joined the conversation.
SBI think you really hit the nail on the head at the end, in terms of who and what is being treated as valuable in our society, and questioning that, and the importance of taking action on that, especially for institutions.
On the experience of students in the education system and the challenges around that, Natasha asks: Do you have advice for students trying to advocate for themselves and others for the academic institutions to provide the care they require?
LAI think first of all, it's about trying to get together. I think the power of students' voices united is really important. Trying to do that stuff on your own—again, it's that analogy that I made, about going insane on your own. You can't have the energy to do all of it.
People are going to say, 'Why the hell did you say that?' But be careful about the tutors you trust. There are some that you will be able to trust and talk to about these things, and hopefully they will be able to give you that space and time.
In the way that not all practitioners really want to bother or hear any of that stuff, some tutors just want to carry on with routine as rust. It's important to build and connect and get other people together who feel that way as well, because not everybody is going to. That's going to help, because if you try and do that on your own, you're done.
There are different things that need to be pulled apart or opened up, critiqued and broken down, for new things to happen.
I know people who started courses and then they sadly left them because they were alone, or they felt alone. Even if you don't have people who are studying in the same institution as you, if there are people who you know in other institutions, organise. Have those conversations as well, don't internalise that stuff. It just destroys you. That's where I think the power starts—it's from within, with the people. It's not with the institutions. That's the irony—the institutions listen when they see things heating up and they see that's what's up. So that would be my advice.
SBThank you. And here's a question around what institutions do with their archives and addressing underrepresented narratives, and how they use archives to impact change: how do you feel about an archive being a communal resource?
LAThat's an interesting one. The way I personally see archives, institutions don't even necessarily own them. It's people that own them, but institutions become spaces that hold the archives, because a lot of people don't have the space to hold these things at home. I consider a lot of the things that I own here in my own place as archival. It's historical because it's dated—it goes back to a certain point in time.
As much as I work with them, I don't trust institutions to be able to tell that story all the time. I have a really quick, but funny story about the Museum of Childhood, which I grew up around the corner from in Bethnal Green. I remember years ago, I went to an exhibition on video gaming there and they incorrectly named the Super Nintendo as the Game Boy. I was like, 'How the hell could you get that wrong? That's sacrilegious, that's ridiculous! And you lot are supposed to be experts?'
The point that I'm making is that the public has the power and even the knowledge and even the expertise of knowing things that certain experts actually don't. How an archive is looked after, I don't know. I don't think there's one particular way of looking after things.
If I think about the traditions that I originate from—my Akan Ashanti heritage—that calling and responding, the approach of the griots, the storyteller, the traveller, is important. That happens through telling stories, through sharing stories—the human archive is a thing. So I wouldn't entirely rely on objects if I were you, I hope that answers the question.
SBThat goes back to what you were saying earlier, that you learn from the lived experience. We have time for one more question: On a slightly more optimistic note, I was interested in whether you've seen or noticed any arts organisations providing interesting or challenging formats at this time, creating new forms of open culture?
LAI don't necessarily think about them as an institution, but I guess in a way it's kind of inevitable that they are turning into that. It's been cool seeing what The White Pube have been doing. I like what they've been opening up with regards to video games—it's something I've personally wanted to do for a while.
I'll find a way of doing it my own way, but I love the fact that they're talking about video games as an art form, but in a similar manner to how they talk about contemporary art, without so many silly words from an art encyclopaedia. That has kept my eyes, my head, and my ears more focused than reading about said biennial in this part of the planet or that part of the planet, because that's just the usual thing that you expect.
These are genuine conversations around video games by people who critique, but they're actually spending time with that. It's not just being spoken about with all the post-internet scholars and stuff. It's a nice breath of fresh air. It seems to be building a community of people who feel like what they do or what they enjoy, has value. It's a shame that certain things have to exist for people to feel that way, but that unfortunately is what happens.
The White Pube's continued striving for being critical has been important. Not everyone's always going to agree with it, but it's just important that it exists there. I think for too long, with most art debates, there's been this weird thing of always being neutral. When it comes to lived experiences that make their way into art, if we're talking about that politically, tell me how can you remain neutral about the potential of a demagogue being voted in as prime minister or president?
You can't be neutral about stuff like that. I mean, you can, but that exposes the privilege that certain people have to be able to be ambivalent or apolitical. The non-decisions that we make are still decisions in themselves.
Outside of that, if I'm honest with you, it's just been the usual aspects of popular culture, just watching shows or films. It's been great to spend time catching up on DVDs that I've collected and just not had the time to watch, because I've been travelling about. Conversations with people, even through Zoom, can be a bit annoying, but that space and time to talk to people and to listen to them has been good.—[O]
This discussion took place as part of Open Rooms, Open Eye Gallery's online programme. It involves free live-streamed talks, workshops, and ongoing public discussions on Discord. It takes place in rooms all across the world—artists' rooms, chat rooms, and in your living room. You can watch the recording of this discussion here.
1 'Biters: Interview with Larry Achiampong and David Blandy', Iniva Arts, YouTube, 29 May 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJPMtsGgoQM